Thinking strategically about North Korea

Posted in Koreas | 29-Oct-03 | Author: Robert Dujarric

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il salutes during the celebration to mark the country's 55th birthday in this Sept. 9, 2003 file photo at Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung Square.
Exclusively for the World Security Network

There has been renewed press coverage of the possibility of some sort of multilateral agreement involving North Korea's nuclear weapons. It is hoped that it will "solve" the North Korean nuclear problem in a peaceful manner.

Such hopes, however, are unrealistic. North Korea's regime wants nuclear weapons. It is not willing to give them up, at least not at a price that is acceptable to the international community. What North Korea wants is a deal that allows it to achieve some of its political and economic goals without surrendering its nuclear capability.

Unfortunately, for more than a decade, most of the attention on North Korea has focused on the nuclear issue, whereas the real dangers that arise from the situation on the peninsula are ignored.

Obviously, it would be better if North Korean did not have atomic bombs. Two facts must, however, be understood. First, nuclear technology is old, the first bomb was exploded almost sixty years ago. To prevent its spread is a rear-guard fight, which is failing (see Israel, India, Pakistan, perhaps soon Iran). Second, North Korea can be deterred. The United States successfully deterred the much more powerful Soviet Union. Deterrence needs to be adjusted to the specifics of North Korea, but it can be successful. Therefore, as much as we may regret it, we can live with a nuclear DPRK, as we probably have been for many years assuming that reports of its nuclear status are accurate. The main task in dealing with North Korea is for the United States to make its commitment to defend Japan from North Korea as credible as possible to Japan and to North Korea. This may involve the additional deployment of US forces in Japan and/or the development of missile defense capabilities with Japan.

Proliferation by North Korea to groups like al-Qaeda would be a grave danger. However, the US can attempt to stop North Korea from doing it, by making it explicit that it will be held responsible for any use of North Korean materials or know-how by third parties. In addition, intelligence work and covert operations can play a role in dealing with this threat. Anyhow, the danger of proliferation to al-Qaeda is much greater from Pakistan, a US ally whose military and society is infiltrated by al-Qaeda and Taliban supporters, than from North Korea.

The real challenge in Northeast Asia is what will happen once North Korea collapses. Though we cannot predict when the North Korean state will finally meet its demise, it is very unlikely that it will survive in the long term (though whether the "long term" is one year or twenty years is impossible to predict).

Once North Korea collapses, we will have to deal with two major issues.

First, the management of reconstruction. North Korea is not East Germany. For all its evil nature, the East German government provided its citizenry with the basic necessities of life (food, shelter, clothing, basic medical care), let East Germans have fairly extensive contacts with the West (TV, radio, visits by relatives), and made it possible for the population to have access to non-Marxist ideas. North Koreans, however, are barely above the starvation line (and some are bellow), hundreds of thousands may be in concentration camps, most are cut off from the rest of the world, and have been subjected for a half a century to a level of brain washing and propaganda that makes East Germany look like a pluralistic society. In addition, South Korea is not West Germany. It is not as rich, nor are its politics and social conditions as solidly rooted in the middle class liberal tradition as West Germany's were.

The Yongbyon nuclear facility in North Korea is seen in this handout satellite image
Consequently, South Korea will need a lot of help to manage unification. This includes not only large sums of money, but possible also military support to help it deal with the immediate aftermath of the occupation. South Korea, together with the United States, Japan, the EU, and the International Financial Institutions should start now to plan for the international support that will be organized once unification takes place. Rather than pressure South Korea to toe the line on the nuclear question, the United States should take the lead in nudging the South Korean government to support such an international planning group. Creating a trust fund that will be used once unification occurs might be a good idea (whereas we can be assured that almost all the aid for Iraq will be stolen or wasted, it is possible for such an emergency aid program for unified Korea to be productive if it is well designed and managed).

Second, Korean unification could alter the strategic equation in Northeast Asia. Right now, Korean division freezes the geopolitics of the peninsula, with the South in the US-Japanese camp and the North dependent on, but not allied to, China. Once the North is gone, we may see the return of a Sino-Japanese competition for influence on the peninsula. Koreans and Japanese will probably start to worry about each others' intentions, opening the road to a destabilizing rivalry between Japan and Korea.

To prevent the unification of Korea from destabilizing the region, the United States will need to remain militarily involved in Northeast Asia, which means it will have to continue to deploy large ground and air forces in Korea and Japan as well as keep its naval bases in Japan. American military hegemony is the only way to secure the peace in the region. Unfortunately, the ill-conceived and strategically mistaken war against Iraq has given a bad name to American hegemony, but the errors of the current administration should not make us forget the fact that there is at present no substitute to American power to guarantee the peace in Northeast Asia. Consequently, it is time for South Koreans and Japanese to lobby Washington for a continued presence in Asia in the post-North Korea era.

In conclusion, American policy has put too much emphasis on the nuclear issue (this mistake, it must be noted, predates the Bush administration by many years). While it cannot ignore the nuclear question, Washington should devote more energy to thinking about the post-North Korea world. The history of previous regime collapses, be it the Shah of Iran, East Germany, the Soviet Union, and in earlier years Louis XVI's monarchy, tells us that it not possible to predict the timing of such events. Therefore, we must be ready now, even though the North might last many more years.